Alexandria, ancient remains and the new library

Date of Submission: 28/07/2003
Criteria: (i)(ii)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Ministry of Culture - Supreme Council of Antiquities
Coordinates: 31°12' N / 29°55' E
Ref.: 1822
Word File

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In 332 BC, Alexander the Great who was welcomed as a liberator, first went to Memphis, the capital of Pharaonic Egypt, to honour the Egyptian gods and to receive the royal investiture as Pharaoh, then to the village of Rakhotis to the west of the delta near the Mediterranean, to found Alexandria whose perimeter who drew himself and ordered his architect, Dinocrates of Rhodes, to draw up the plan. Then he left Egypt. After his death in 322 BC, he was buried in Memphis for some time. He was then brought to Alexandria by Ptolemy for re-burial in the Sema or Soma necropolis which became that of his successors, the Ptolemy dynasty. His successors, Ptolemy I and his son Ptolemy II (285-246 BC) then the whole dynasty of the Ptolemies, developed the city, built numerous grandiose monuments and decorated it in the fashion both of the Greeks and the Egyptians. Thus in 641 AD Alexandria became a great metropolis receptive to both Egyptian and Hellenistic influences. The Egyptian adventure of Alexander the Great which only lasted six months, had consequences not just for Egypt whose destiny was changed, but also for the whole Mediterranean. Description of the ancient city "Full of temples, theatres and colossal palaces, the city was manificent, spreading five kilometres along the coast with a width of 1½ kilometres. It was surrounded by powerful fortifications and was based on an irregular quadrilateral plan. It had different quarters for the Egyptians, Greeks and the Jews, as well as necropolises and residential areas. It had two ports, as the stretch of water between the coast and the island of Pharos had been divided into two by Heptastades, through an approx. 1.800 m jetty which connected the island with the land. To the east was the Portus Magnus alongside which, from the small peninsula of Lochias right up to the quarter of Bronkhion, were the palaces of the Ptolemies, the Emporium and the Caesium, the temple which Cleopatra had built in Anthony's honour and which was completed by Augustus and consecrated for the Imperial cult. The Heliopolis obelisks which stood in front of this monument are now in London and in New York. On an island connected to the land Anthony built the Timonion, a royal palace to which he withdrew after the defeat of Actium. At the end of the islet of Pharos stood the tower of Pharos which gave its name to the signalling system which was so useful to the navigators. In the middle of the city was the Soma or Suma, the necropolis of the Ptolemies where Alexander was buried and the Museon, a college of erudite philosophers where the famous library founded by Ptolemy I was to be found and which was enlarged by his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus and organized by Demetrios Phaleris . Alexandria, thanks to its port, rapidly became one of the great centres of commercial activity in Antiquity and replaced Tyre. The Lighthouse of AlexandriaIt was commissioned by Ptolemy II Philadelphus from Sostrades of Cnidus and was composed of three superimposed elements which were square, octagonal and circular (the whole structure being over 120 m high). The lighthouse was one of the seven wonders of the world in antiquity. Its outline is known only from coins, a Byzantine mosaic discovered in Libya and the remains of a similar lighthouse in Taposiris Magna. Badly damaged due to the lack of maintenance because of Alexandria's decline during the Byzantine era, it received a final blow during an earthquake which struck the region at the beginning of the XIIth century. The Mamelukes built in its place in the XVth century the present fort of Qayt Bey (XV century). Underwater excavations brought to light some elements which had fallen into the sea, some of which are blocks of over 50 tons which, aligned on the ground, could possibly be part of the lighthouse's socle. In less than a century, becoming greater than Carthage, it was deemed to be the most brilliant city after Rome where Greek culture sparkled in all its splendour. Euclides founded there a school of mathematics which lasted for several centuries; there Archimedes of Syracuse made numerous discoveries. Hipparchus the father of astronomy, Erastothenes of Cyrene, known for his scientific geography, Heropheles the physician practised surgery there and many other scientists and scholars frequented the Museon and the library which made it famous for several centuries. The library of Alexandria It seems to have contained between 400.000 and 700.000 rolls of papyrus dealing with all the sciences. When Julius Caesar landed in Egypt, a fire partially destroyed the library. Anthony reconstituted it with 200.000 volumes from Pergamon. A slanderous legend says that it was finally burned down by the Arab conqueror Amr Ibn al-As. In reality, the "Great Library" like the palace, probably disappeared between 270 and 250 A.D. It was certainly the greatest and the richest in the ancient world where famous people who came from all over the world, could be met there as well as in the Museon of which it was a part. This vast structure, which included conference halls, observatories, a park, a zoo and refectories, was quite unique in the world". Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemy dynasty, was crowned in Alexandria; there she met Anthony and together there they met their tragic end. Second city of the Roman empire with its 500.000 inhabitants, Alexandria enjoyed two more centuries of splendour. In 30 BC, Egypt became a Roman province. Vespasian was proclaimed emperor in Alexandria in 69 AD. Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius stayed there. Cleopatra "Between myth and reality, legend and history, the last of the Ptolemies is still full of fascination today. Daughter of Ptolemy XII, she acceded to the throne in 51 BC under the guardianship of the Roman senate represented by Pompey, at the same time as her brother and husband Ptolemy XIII. After Caesar's death (44 BC) with whom she had a son, she seduced Mark Anthony, the new Master of the East. She won Phoenicia, Syria, Cyprus, part of Cilicia and the Nabatean Kingdom. The battle of Actium in 31 BC rang her death knoll. Octavius (the future Augustus) there defeated Anthony who, believing Cleopatra to be dead, committed suicide. Cleopatra, having first tried to seduce the victor, handed over Alexandria and then killed herself". Christianity spread very quickly and became the State religion in 392 AD. The Byzantine emperor Theodosius II ordered the destruction of the pagan temples including the famous Serapeum of Alexandria and Diocletian ordered the whole city to be sacked. A cosmpolitan cultural centre, Alexandria, despite some reverses, greatly contributed to the success of the new religion which found philosophical sustenance there and which partly drew upon the tradition of ancient Egypt until the arrival of the Moslems in 642 AD. 2. Places remembered: archeological remains What is there left today of the ancient city? There is no lighthouse, no library, no palaces of the Ptolemies, all have vanished. But there are many other remains on the land and under the sea important and significant enough to bear witness to the city's past and especially its role in the civilisational and cultural exchanges between Egypt and the rest of the Mediterranean, especially the Greco-Roman World. The modern city, built on the rubble of the city of Alexander the Great and his successors the Ptolemies, still displays excavated remains and the sea near the coast still conceals a considerable amount of architectural elements, statues which sometimes are colossal, great blocks of stones, marble or granite, all submerged under the sea. All these remains on the land and under the sea can be divided into three groups: A. Huge monuments and structures B. Ancient necropolises C. Underwater remains. A. Huges monuments and structures Pompey's Column ('Amùd as-Sawari) Situated on a small hill, probably on the site of ancient Rhakotis, near the Kom el-Shuqâfa cemetery, this monolithic column hewn out of the Aswan granite and erected by the emperor Diocletian in 297 AD, constitutes a rare example in the Greco-Roman world of a column hewn out of a single block of granite. It is 22 m high with a diameter of 2,70 m at the base and a socle 8 m high. On top it has a huge Corinthian capital in granite which bore the equestrian statue of Diocletian until the seventh century. The present 30 m high structure in Alexandria is the only ancient monument of such a dimension to have survived the ravages of time and of people. Two sphinxes from the Ptolemaic era found in the vicinity were placed on either side of the column. Other Pharaonic sphinxes are also on the site; two statues, one of Ramses II, another of Psamtik, a 1st century A.D. granite frieze which could have belonged to the temple of Serapis, remains of a nilometer, an 8 m high statue of Isis Pharia and the ruins of the temple of Isis to the north. But what attracts most attention are the ruins of the temple of Serapis, the famous Serapeum as borne out by the existence of a long underground tunnel hewn out of the rock, with crypts and recesses in which to place the rolls of papyrus from the temple library. The Serapeum was built in fact in the second century BC and dedicated to the god Serapis, a combination of Greek and Egyptian gods (namely the god Apis) and bears witness to a cult which was immensly popular, not just in Egypt, but in the whole of the Mediterranean. Did the majestic, so called Pompey's column have any connection at all with the famous Serapeum before being used as a monument to Diocletian's memory. Some scholars uphold the hypothesis that it is a relic bearing witness to the splendour of the famous, 2nd century BC, pagan temple. The Kom el-Dikka Site This is a 4 ha site located in the town centre where excavation seasons since 1964 have unearthed numerous remains which today are well restored and preserved. These are mostly monuments from the Roman era: a theatre, thermal baths, a cistern, a residential quarter and villas with mosaics which, within the Egyptian archeological context, are of exceptional and unique value. The Roman theatre It is the only one found in Egypt. It is in fact a small 88-place-odeon with only the cavea surviving surrounded by a double colonnade made out of columns of granite from Aswan and marble from Anatolia. The Roman baths Like the theatre, the baths from the beginning of the IVth century AD are quite unique in Egypt. Discovered between 1969 and 1979, they were restored and this highlighted some of the brick halls with numerous vaults and arches which were still well preserved. Granite columns had been used in the southern portico and many fragments of columns, capitals, bases and cornices were lying around. A sort of meeting room from the Romano-Byzantine era was brought to light and is the only one in Egypt. The residential quarter This is a homogeneous complex excavated in 1970 and comprises Roman villas, houses and workshops from the 2nd and 3rd century AD. Fragments of frescoes and mosaic floors are in a perfect state of conservation as well as flooring made of pieces of marble, alabaster and other stones. The monochrome and polychrome mosaics left in situ, decorated with geometrical motifs, especially with birds and flowers, are quite unique in Egypt. The theatre, thermal baths and residential quarter constitute an exceptional urban complex in Egypt and a rare example of the architecture and urbanism of the imperial Romano-Byzantine period. B. The Ancient Necropolises Situated outside the ramparts of the ancient city on the eastern and western ends of the 5 km long causeway, on the eastern end is Shatby and Mustapha Kamel and on the western end is Anfûshi, Qablâri and Kom al-Suqàfa. The Shatby necropolis This is the oldest cemetery in Alexandria build in the 3rd century BC soon after the city was founded. There is a hypogeum, probably the best known and the most beautiful from the 3rd century BC where the Ionian and Doric columns used in the sarcophaguses illustrate the intrusion, just after the founding of the city, of elements of Hellenistic art to the detriment of the local Egyptian art. The Mustapha Kamel hypogeum Near the Shatby funerary complex and apart from the small sphinxes guarding the entrance to the tombs, Greek influence here also seems to predominate in the columns, capitals and friezes in the pure Ionian-and-Doric-style with paintings which are reminiscent of the Macedonian royal tombs of Vergina in Greece. This Greek predominance could probably be explained by a strong Greek presence during the high Ptolemaic period in this eastern quarter, in contrast to the other necropolises on the west side, Anfûshi, Kom al-Shuqâfa and Qablari, inhabited by mixed populations where old Egyptian sepulchral and artistic traditions mixed with Hellenistic inputs. The Anfûshi necropolis Situated near the Ras el-Tin palace at the foot of the island of Pharos, this necropolis from the beginning of the 3rd century BC is one of the oldest in Alexandria with basically five tombs. There you find painted walls from the 2nd and 1st century BC and mythological scenes from ancient Egypt (themes relating to Isis, Osiris and Horus) and bear witness to the fusion between Egyptian and Hellenistic arts. Another group of paintings imitate tiles, marble and alabaster and look Greek but with no clear similarity with what exists in Greece, with minute, purely Egyptian details. The Kom al-Shuqâfa necropolis This necropolis from the end of the 1st century AD or the beginning of the 2nd century AD and which was used until the IVth century AD, is of exceptional artistic importance as the catacombs, in view of their plans and decorative styles, marry Greco-Roman traditions with Egyptian motifs into quite an esoteric combination. The main tomb Probably a simple family burial vault at the beginning which then became a real necropolis. This tomb is an underground, 20 m deep, 3-tier construction. A spiral staircase leads to a rotunda and a triclinium, for banquets in honour of the deceased, and several galleries connecting funerary units comprising numerous loculi. Going doing some steps you reach the main cavity the decor and size of which are surprising: thus, guarding the entrance to the chapel, the Egyptian god Anubis, dressed as a roman legionary, bears a serpent's tail, an attribute of the Greek god Agathos. Other fragments of frescoes and reliefs bear witness to this astonishing religious synchretism. A few metres from the main tomb, the Tigra tomb, even though much smaller, is interesting because of the remarkable state of preservation of its frescoes. Of a later style, its decor shows the superposition of Egyptian elements and Greco-Roman symbols. Kom al-Shuqâfa is a magnificent testimony of religious syncretism in the Roman empire and of the vigour of the most ancient Egyptian cults. The al-Qablari necropolis Here the tombs are less spectacular but the present excavations uncovered typical examples such as Greco-Roman paintings (ceilings decorated with dolphins, cherubs) Doric or Ionian columns etc... recalling the happy combinations of the Kom al-shuqâfa necropolis. C. Underwater remains These are found in particular along the coast of the Aboukir area and the eastern port of Alexandria (see plan in annex). Aboukir 8 km from Montazah (immense garden where the 16 km long Corniche of Alexandria ends) Aboukir, today a small fishing port, was already famous under the Ptolemies when the cities of Menouthis and Canopus attracted many visitors. Few remains are visible but the recent underwater excavations made it possible to have a clearer understanding of the plan and the extent of the vanished cities. Thus the underwater remains along the present coast are to be protected. The Ancient eastern port The eastern port covers an extensive, 6,5 km long semi-circular area starting at the site of Pharos (the present Qaitbey fortress) up to the north-west passing in front of the Silsila promontory where the royal quarters of the Ptolemies used to be. The recent discoveries have revealed the underwater existence of an immense archeological site, near Pharos, where remains of port installations of the Greek city have been identified, as well as imposing statues, columns and other monumental structures: Alexandria is in a sismic area where, from 320 AD to 1303 AD, no less than 22 earthquakes were recorded. The rise in the sea level and the sea's advance of about 2,6 millimetres per year on the western part of the Nile delta also greatly affected Alexandria in the last 2500 years and submerged part of its coast (the archeological remains have been identified at a depth of 6 to 8 m along the coast). Recent excavations since 1995 near the Fort lead to the discovery of 30.000 blocks scattered over more than 2 ha. A study of all the remains could probably make it possible one day to confirm that imposing monuments and perhaps even parts of the famous lighthouse are still lying under the sea. Since 1997, off the eastern port, several wrecks of Greek and Roman vessels from the 3rd century BC up to the VIth century of our era have been discovered. An accurate inventory of underwater remains has been made covering a wide area of 2,5 ha identifying no less than 3100 objects some of which weigh over 40 tons. There are Pharaonic, Greek and Roman pieces, including 5 colossal, 12 m high statues from the Ptolemaic period (two of them have been lifted out) no less than 25 sphinxes (20 have been saved) the oldest going back to the reign of Sesostris II in 1900 BC and the most recent going back to 600 BC. Most of these elements are of granite and marble, some are from columns, capitals and fragments of obelisks (3 belonging to Sethi I). Conclusion The underwater remains and those discovered on the land are exceptionally valuable and bear an eloquent and meaningful testimony to the role played by Alexandria for a thousand years in Egypt and more widely in the Mediterranean since it was founded in 321 BC until its decline in the IV century AD; a period during which it was truly a gate for Hellenism and Romanism and to a certain extent of Christianity in Egypt, Africa, and the Middle East and also a window of Egyptian civilisation which was widely open to the Mediterranean. 4°) The new library: a memory revived Like the ancient library whose approximate site it now occupies, the new library of Alexandria, inaugurated with great pomp on 16th October 2002 in the presence of Heads of State and eminent politicians and scholars, is, according to its statutes, "an international centre of exchange and communication of human knowledge and a link between an East with an authentic heritage and a West with the means of scientific and technological progress". Like the ancient library, it is to attract the elite from around the world. From the beginning the project received support and encouragements from all over the world, from UNESCO as well as material assistance from UNDP and several States. Federico Mayor, the Director General of UNESCO, wrote in 1989 that the objective of the project was not to reconstruct a historical monument lost for ever but rather to "revive, under a modern aspect, a unique world heritage in the cultural history of humankind". The building, near the sea, on a 60.000 m² surface area, should, according to the terms of reference of the international architecture competition, "be designed in such a manner as to bear witness to the deep roots of Egyptian civilisation and a pearl in the crown of the culture of tomorrow". The project submitted by a Norwegian consultancy, opted for an architecture inspired by the form of an inclined cylinder, a part of which disappears underground and the other part rises above the ground, suggesting the eternal shape of the sun which will "continue to shed light on the world of human knowledge". The building bears other symbols, such as the massive granite wall covered with sculptured signs which, reminiscent of alphabetical letters of various human languages, suggest the profound aspect of Egypt and the institution's universal vocation. The monument, like its illustrious predecessor, houses several complementary institutions; apart from the library itself, a documentation and research centre, a library for the blind, a children's library, with an exhibition of manuscripts, an exhibition of calligraphy, of maps and photography, a science museum, an astronomical research unit and other places for scientific and educational programmes, restoration laboratories and above all a beautiful archeological museum. The library can hold over one and a half million books and has areas to accommodate a great number of visitors and also possesses the best digital and computerized tools available to modern libraries at present. By reviving the memory of the venerable cultural Hellenistic institution which vanished seventeen centuries ago, through a programme to develop human knowledge within a framework of regional and international exchange and through an architecture both futuristic and rooted in Egypt's distant past, the new library of Alexandria, within the historical and archeological context of today's Alexandria, is rich in Greco-Roman remains of exceptional universal value and provides a bridge not only between the past and the present, but also for the future and a wager for the heritage of tomorrow.